Book Diary Special – ‘Red or Dead’ by David Peace

Friday 2nd August – Monday 26th August

“I have written about corruption, I’ve written about crime, I’ve written about bad men and I’ve written about the demons. But now I’ve had enough of the bad men and the demons. Now I want to write about a good man. And a saint. A Red Saint. Bill Shankly was not just a great football manager. Bill Shankly was one of the greatest men who ever lived. And the supporters of Liverpool Football Club, and the people of Liverpool the city, know that and remember him. But many people outside of football, outside of Liverpool, do not know or do not remember him. And now – more than ever – it’s time everybody knew about Bill Shankly. About what he achieved, about what he believed. And how he led his life. Not for himself, for other people.” – David Peace

So ran the announcement of David Peace’s new novel, ‘Red or Dead’. I count myself among the people outside of Liverpool – Shankly is just a name, a former manager, and little more than that. After ‘The Damned United’, I was looking forward to this book and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The book is written in two ‘halves’, though the first half, dealing with his managerial career takes up nearly 500 of the book’s 715 pages, and the second half is also much easier reading.

The main reason that the first section is such slow going is the pedantic recital of details of virtually every match Bill Shankly managed, and little else. However, this was  a conscious decision, to show that the road to success is a long, slow and arduous one built on foundations of attention to detail and relentless repetition, and Shankly’s obsession with football to the exclusion of all else. It isn’t until the end approaches, and he begins to feel that football is changing and starting to leave him behind that his life outside the game creeps in, with subtle references to his health, the health of his wife and the changing attitude of the players gently inserting themselves between him and the job he used to love.

The second half is more human, more poignant than the first. There’s Shankly’s struggle to let go of Liverpool Football Club, the uncomfortable attempts of the club to encourage him to move on and let the new order establish themselves and the sad situation in which he is more welcome at rivals Everton and Manchester United than he is at Anfield.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and after all of David Peace’s previous work, it is a refreshing change to read such a warm portrait of someone he clearly admires. There isn’t a single person who comes out of it badly – even Shankly’s neglect of his wife for much of the story, leaving her at home as he quenches his thirst for football at every opportunity, creates no resentment between them and is presented uncritically as merely a facet of his character rather than a flaw.

What I enjoy the most about David Peace’s writing is that I seem to be on his wavelength in many ways. I see what he is doing to create the effects he desires. As with the pedantic approach to the first half of this book, there is also a lack of detail for a lot of the second half, certainly very few dates are mentioned, which gives a feeling of timelessness which I imagine is a common feeling in retirement. It is no longer clear in which month, or even in which year certain things happen. As he attends any game to which he is invited, the events lack the cohesion of a structured season for a given team and so become islands in a sea of time.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes Liverpool, any football fan, and certainly  the last section is worthy of anyone’s attention for its sad and touching portrayal of a man in retirement. I think David Peace is a brilliant writer, but this time he has written a person better than ever before.

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